As the campaign for the 2019 general election builds up, so too with the debate on electronic voting machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs). For example, as a result of a new development in the Nizamabad parliamentary constituency in Telangana, the Election Commission (EC) would have been forced to conduct elections using ballot papers — there are 185 candidates in the fray. This exceeds the capacity of an EVM, which can cater to 64 candidates (63 candidates and the None of the Above, or NOTA, option). The EC is now considering using special machines which can accommodate up to 384 candidates. These will use 24 ballot units connected in series. For this it will have to buy at an enormous cost 26,820 ballot units, 2,240 control units and 2,600 VVPATs. I wonder whether it is possible to acquire so many machines with technical changes in the short time available.
In the past, in A.P.
The use of ballot papers to conduct elections is not new; they were used in the same State in 2010 in a near comic situation.
In July 2010, the Telangana agitation was at its peak, and 12 MLAs of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly had resigned and were contesting the by-elections. This coincided with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led anti EVM campaign. After the EC turned down the request of political parties to go back to paper ballots, the parties resorted to a smart ploy. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) decided to field more than 64 candidates in each constituency. So, there were 114 nominations in Yellareddy (then in Nizamabad district and 107 in Sircilla. Even after large-scale rejection of nominations, the numbers in six constituencies exceeded 64. The EC was forced to conduct elections in these constituencies by ballot paper.
The EC took it as a great opportunity to showcase the relative strength of EVMs. While the EVM results were available in four hours, the ballot paper results took 40 hours. Adding to this were thousands of invalid votes. The other issues were the economic and environmental costs of printing ballots and prolonged drudgery for polling staff. Ironically, the results from both systems across seats were similar.
Where did the political parties stand then? A media report said the TRS opposed EVMs “because it [had] reliable information that the Congress [would] try to manipulate the machines to win the polls”. The Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu demanded that ballot papers be used in all 12 constituencies. Bandaru Dattatreya, BJP president in then undivided Andhra Pradesh, said, “We have been demanding that there should be a nationwide debate on EVMs. The TRS has used the right strategy.” A Congress spokesman said it was unfortunate that the parties had doubted the EC’s integrity, forcing it to incur additional printing expenses. So, while the issue remains the same, the characters have changed.
It is pertinent to point out that the difference between the 2010 incident and this time (in terms of the number of candidates) is that a large number of farmers are contesting as independent candidates to highlight their problems. It has nothing to do with an anti-EVM movement.
Since the last general election, there have been allegations about the BJP hacking EVMs. The EC has repeatedly challenged conspiracy theorists to demonstrate that EVMs can be hacked but no party has accepted it.
This debate should have ended in October 2010 when the EC called an all-party meeting which unanimously recommended the adoption of VVPATs, which was promptly accepted. The two factories manufacturing EVMs were asked to develop VVPATs, and an independent committee of professors from five Indian Institutes of Technology was requested to monitor the process.
There were a series of trials, followed by two full-day election simulations in five cities across India (with different climatic conditions) in 2011-12. Only after the VVPATs passed all the rigorous tests (climatic endurance and technology) were they deployed, initially in 20,000 polling booths. As manufacturing progressed, all constituencies were equipped with VVPATs. In 2013, the Supreme Court lauded the EC’s initiatives, directing the government to release adequate funds for procurement for all booths for the 2019 elections. Since 2017, all elections have been held with VVPAT-attached EVMs. A total of 1,500 machines have been counted as per the present norm of counting slips generated by one VVPAT in each Assembly constituency. Not a single mismatch has been detected.
Sorting things out
The only pending issue is of VVPAT audits. As many as 23 Opposition parties have moved the Supreme Court demanding that half the total slips be tallied. A group of retired bureaucrats and diplomats has also written to the EC regarding the sample size to ensure 99.9% public satisfaction.
The EC has submitted to the court that the three-member expert panel comprising members from the Indian Statistical Institute, the Chennai Mathematical Institute and the Central Statistics Office has endorsed the current practice of counting one VVPAT per Assembly constituency, and that the sample size proposed by political parties would only serve to delay results by six days. The judgment is expected soon.
I have also proposed an alternative. The top two runners-up in the constituency can choose any two VVPATs to be counted as they have the highest stake in the results. This would serve to do away with a large sample, as only four machines per Assembly would have to be counted to ensure public faith in the system. This is on the analogy of the highly popular and successful Umpire Decision Review System in cricket.
EVMs have made India a proud global leader in elections. After incorporating VVPATs, the system is now foolproof. After the expert panel report, the EC’s initiatives in this regard stand vindicated. It should now clinch the EVM debate and utilise the opportunity in the Nizamabad constituency to demonstrate the relative superiority of the EVM as the wonder machine of Indian democracy.
S.Y. Quraishi is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’